tv First Ladies Jane Pierce and Harriet Lane CSPAN June 8, 2015 12:01am-1:36am EDT
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>> she is probably the most tragic of all the first ladies. she hated politics. she did not move into the white house with peers. >> this couch is one piece that they took to the white house. >> when she did arrive, she spent much of her time writing letters to her dead son and in her great grief she called him my precious child, i must write to you even though you are never to see it or know it. a very poignant letter written by a grieving mother. >> they were on a train and there was a terrible accident. >> the train ride was very devastating for the family. an axelrod broke on the train and benny did not survive the crash. >> she concluded that this was god's judgment. that the loss of her son was god's punishment. >> the house was too much for her to take care of. i don't think she was interested in housekeeping particularly. she wasn't capable of taking care of a house. >> most through -- most would
regard pierce himself as a failure in the office. >> she was glad to leave the place. >> it was probably the unhappiest of all presidencies. >> evening and welcome to c-span's first lady influence and image. we learn about the final first ladies of the antebellum era. we meet jane pierce whose tenure in the white house was defined by overwhelming loss. by the time she and her husband arrive at executive mansion, they have lost all three of their young sons and she finds herself crippled by grief. we'll delve into jane pierce and to help us understand more about this first lady, meet our guest who is the author of a new biography of jane pierce called "jane means appleton pierce.” set the stage for this conversation, 1852. what are the issues that bring franklin pierce to the white house? >> the situation was dire at that time. everything was in turmoil.
there were problems between the north and the south and the slavery issues and the democratic party to which he belonged was split. and there was a situation where they were having to find a nominee for the presidential election but they didn't want anybody from the south obviously because of the slavery situation. franklin pierce appeared to them to be the best bet as a nominee at that time. and merely because of his reputation as a marvelous racketeer but he had remained popular with the south and it was thought there was a good chance that he would be able to win that nomination. there was a great deal of politicking, i have to say around about that time. but eventually he was nominated
at the 48 ballot. that was the situation that he found himself in. >> despite the 48 ballots to get him the nomination, he won the white house in an overwhelming landslide. >> he did, yes. >> so the pierces came in popular. but tell us about this woman weluctant first lady. >> yeah, she was very reluctant. >> what were her greatest influences? >> i don't -- well, if she had any influences, they were negative, i have to say. she came into the white house, she was a 47-year-old lady who it is well known hated politics. she was obviously deeply depressed at the death of her last surviving son. especially under the terrible circumstances in which he died. her influence within the white
house at the time -- she didn't come to the white house for at least a fortnight after the inauguration. she didn't even attend the inauguration. but when she came she immediately said, i will have mourning bunting around the house. and such was her influence with her husband, that he agreed to it. he accepted that it would only last for a year. in fact, the mourning period lasted for over two years. as far as influencing is concerned, she did manage to influence the powers that be that she needed a new bathroom a new luxurious bathroom on the second floor, where the family lived.
so, yes, she influenced that. but as far as any other influencing is concerned, they were all negative. they made the white house a morbid place. >> a morbid white house at a time when the country is deeply divided. >> absolutely. >> how did this woman who hated politics, with a strong father who was the president of bowden college, a well-known preacher in his time, she was deeply fundamentalist herself. how did she get matched up with a politician? >> i don't really know. i think she just fell for each other. my research does tell me that they really did think a lot about each other, opposites attract, i suppose. they were opposite completely and utterly. my theory about her not liking politics is something that happened in her childhood, when she was 17 years old, and she just finished her education.
and at the school for girls. and she came home much more confident than she'd ever been. and she'd gone visiting her uncle and aunt in boston at the lawrences with her mother and she was showing a different jane to them. and she was talking to them about a man who should have been made mayor in their town and hadn't been and she just didn't like it. and then she said to her uncle amos, who was very, very important to her, why don't you stand for mayor? i think you'd make a very good mayor. why don't you stand? and the whole family laughed at her and said, how ridiculous.
and even her uncle amos laughed at her. and i think, my personal opinion is, that a 17-year-old girl is stepping out into the world and using her newfound confidence, was suddenly put down by all these people she loved best in the world, laughing at her, i'm sure, i'm not a psychologist obviously, but i'm sure that that could have had a lasting impression on her and maybe she thought to herself, i'm never going to talk politics again. >> well, before we get to our first video, i want to ask about your own interests in jane pierce. you're british. and how did this most reluctant and shy of first ladies who spent her first two years essentially hibernating in the top floors of the white house, attract your attention? >> she attracted me because i felt when i first heard about this lady that she was a very selfish person. that she didn't help her husband in any way, shape or form and i
thought, there must be a reason behind all this. what on earth is it? i also felt for her because she'd lost three of her sons. she was someone i found during my research who was extremely fond of young children and she was made to be a mother. and here she was, a mother without a child to love. and that got to me. i decided that i'd like to know more about this lady, there must be more to her, i thought, than this apparent selfishness that she displayed. toward her husband and his work. >> so in the end did you conclude that she was or was not selfish? >> she was to an extent but they were extenuating circumstances i believe. >> well, to learn more about the story of jane pierce, we're death of their third son.
the first two died early in life. and then he -- benny she diluted -- doted upon. and we're going to travel to her sister's home in andover, massachusetts, where we find out about the summer white house and more importantly the death of their beloved son, benny, which takes place as they travel to washington for the inauguration and just a few miles outside of town. this is andover, massachusetts. >> it was home to john and mary akin. mary was jane pierce's sister. they were very close friends throughout life. and mary was there for jane at all of her most important times in her life. jane and franklin came to andover to visit the family . they came here with their son, benny, to visit the cousins, mary and john had children and franklin and jane became very close and attached to those children after their son passed away. the family stayed at 48 central street which is referred to as the summer white house. it's called that because franklin pierce would come visit his wife in andover. jane would stay with her sister,
mary, at 48 central street, and he would come visit them in the summers in particular. it was believed that the administrative staff stayed just across the road from them. jane and franklin were staying in andover because there had been a death in the family. jane's uncle, amos lawrence had died. so they went to boston to attend that funeral. they returned to andover so they could pack their things and head where they could get ready to move to the white house. unfortunately the train ride was very devastating for the family. they were about a mile outside of andover, an axelrod broke on the train and it slipped on an embankment. as i understand it, benny was a child, he was moving about, this was within five minutes of the trade ride beginning, and when the train rolled down he was hit in the back of his head. very severely. and benny did not survive the crash. the services for benny took place at mary akin's house. they went to concord to bury benny but jane did not attend. she was very grief-stricken and could not make it to the final
procession of the funeral. jane was very sick most of her life. she's been referred to as tubercular. >> extenuating circumstance, you describe her beloved only surviving child dying right in front of her eyes. anyone can appreciate how devastating that would be. >> yes, indeed. >> so, how did she take this grief to the white house? how did she approach her responsibilities there? >> she cast aside her responsibilities really. but fortunately franklin had a good secretary and she also had a mentor that was her aunt abigail kent, who took over her
duties. >> the white house was in mourning. we learned how incredibly social washington is. and how politics gets done in social interactions. >> yes. >> so here we have a critical time in the country and a white house in mourning. does that have a political impact? it would be difficult for franklin pierce to romance members of congress, for example, with -- >> yes. i was just going to make that point. he had -- appeared to have great difficulty informing his cabinets, at that time. perhaps they -- the attitude within the white house at that time, the fact that he didn't have jane around him to comfort him, as he had done, as she had done in previous problems they'd had together, and also he was mourning deeply, grieving deeply
for benny himself. and the feeling is that he didn't get -- he could not put his whole heart and soul into the job of being president of the united states. and that a lot of people do feel that that delayed the establishment of his cabinet. it happened when he did establish the cabinet, it ran for the whole term which was the first time that a cabinet had run for the whole of the four years. so he did work well in the end by getting the best team together. but it's that sort of situation that did upset his way of working. to a large extent. >> when you read about her religious views, she believed,
as i understand it, in a punitive god. there's retributions for actions. how did they process the death of their child? -- how did she process the death of their child? >> what do you mean? >> she did she blame herself or franklin pierce for it? how did she put that into perspective? >> she thought that it was god sort of punishing them for some misdemeanor. i think she did tend to blame franklin in some instance because he had not kept her aware of the circumstances of his nomination. when he did eventually inform her of the nomination, he reassured her that he wouldn't get elected, you know, i won't get elected.
and i think she felt that he was being punished through the death of benny and she drew away from him and that made things completely worse. i think that if they had come together during that time an have saved themselves a lot of unhappiness. >> and we should tell people that pierce had walked away from politics because of his concerns for jane. he resigned his senate seat. he went back to the family home. and essentially turned down appointments for things. so she felt that he left politics for good. >> yes. except the local politics. she accepted that he needed to continue with his politics and so he did win -- when he went back to new hampshire. she didn't mind that because she saw him every night. >> now, one interesting aspect of this is that she was on the second floor of the family quarters of the white house, but she was trying to seek some
understanding of this. i understand that there was a spiritualist movement in the united states at the time and she in fact really sought out spiritualists along the way. what can you tell us about that? >> my understanding is that she did not seek them out, they sought her out. and i am aware from research that the letters shah she wrote -- the letters that she wrote to benny were not in any way mystical or spiritual. under the influence of these spiritualists, they were really a way for her to express her great grief and she wrote the letters and i think psychologists would agree with that because they do say if you're grieving or you've got some terrible loss, write it down, you know, and it helps. and it does. it's a proven fact nowadays. i don't know who suggested it to her, if anybody did, that she should write out these thoughts about her sorrow and his passing, but even if she started that herself, it was good because it must have helped her.
>> this is an interactive program. if you've been watching us along the way on the series, you know there's several ways to get involved. you can send us a tweet, make sure you use the #firstladies. you can also post a question or comment on our facebook page. we have a conversation already started there. or you can phone us here are our phone lines. if you live in the eastern or central time zones 202-585-3880, or out west, 202-585-3881. we'll get for your comments and questions in a minute. our guests referred to letters written to jane pierce's son. we're going to learn about that next. we're going to travel to the new hampshire historical society which holds the papers of the pierce family and see two important letters in understanding of the will the
story of jane pierce. >> this letter was written by benny pierce who was 11 years old. from andover, massachusetts, where he was visiting with his cousins in june of 1852. at the time the franklin pierce was nominated for president at democratic national convention in baltimore. franklin and his mother had been in boston waiting for news of the nomination. and benny was staying with relatives in andover. benny, knowing how much his mother disliked politics, wrote in the letter that i hope he won't be elected for i should not like to live in washington and i know you would not like to either. so this is an indication of the problems that franklin pierce is going to have with his wife and child as he ran for president in 1852.
>> this is the most famous letter jane pierce wrote. it was written to her dead son. he died in january of 1853 in a train wreck in andover massachusetts. and some time after that she was in her great grief, she sat down and penciled this letter. to her dead son. in which she calls him my precious child. i must write to you although you are never to see it or know it. it wasn't sent anywhere obviously and it survives today. a very poignant letter written by a grieving mother who had lost all of her children. >> so, you agree with that analysis. that because of the use of pencil in writing the letter, it was really not meant to be published. >> no, or seen by anybody else. she was just expressing her grief. >> in general, as you did your research, was she much of a letter-writer? did you did she write a lot to relatives? >> she did. but increasingly her writing became worse and worse. and they were hardly legible in the end. but, yes, she was a letter writer, particularly to her mother. >> and what portrait can you help us understand in reading
her letters and doing your research, tell us about her. >> i thought she was very selfish. she seemed hooked on being ill. and they were never serious illnesses. they were usually colds. and she would have a cold at the drop of a hat, actually. if she didn't want to do anything she would say, i'm sorry, i've got a cold coming on or i have a cold or i'm going to have a cold. she didn't like to mix with people and she used her supposed ill health when she didn't want to go and visit them or do anything.
she was very fond of her mother and of her sister, mary. but she didn't seem to write very much to her sister, frances, for some reason. neither did frances write to her. they used to mainly get in touch with her through letters to their mother. will you tell frances this or don't forget to tell jane that. for some reason there wasn't a good relationship as far as letter writing was concerned. but jane -- why she had this peculiar need to control her family, which is what she was doing, by referring to her decreasing health, i can't fathom. nobody has been able to fathom that out. unless it was just a prop that she had, not to do things she didn't want to do.
and she simply controlled her family. in a family letter and indeed in letters to friends, there was always a concern about jane, how is dear jane, is her cold any better? and -- but there was never any -- although she had treatment like blood letting, which was a favorite treatment in those days, there was never any diagnosis made. she lived to quite a good age in her 60's, which was a good age in the 19th century. and it was at that stage where she was diagnosed as a consumptive, but prior to that no diagnosis had been made at all. so the impression i have got of jane is that she used the illness to get her own way. and she was going to have her own way, whatever happened.
>> we have a question from phillip who is watching us in long beach, california. hi, you are on the air. welcome. >> hi. good evening, everybody. thank you very much for putting me on the air. you guys are talking about how gloomy things were in the white house, right? and didn't pierce's vice president die during his administration as well? >> yes, rufus king. he died within three months of being elected as vice president and they didn't have another vice president appointed after that. so, yes, you're quite right. which added, may i say, to jane's depression. she thought that doom and gloom and death was all around them. she was very unhappy about that. >> what was she doing on the second floor of the white house
all of this time? could we know? was she reading? how did she occupy her time? >> she was very fortunate in that her whole family rallied and much to her husband's pleasure, she did come and see -- they did come and see her they did come and see jane and spend time with her, particularly her sister, mary's children, of whom they were both very fond. but franklin hardly went to see her so he was grateful that the family visited so he didn't have that chore, dare may i say, of having to go and -- to go into a morbid environment. he had enough to think about. so yes, she wrote letters. she didn't have many friends, unfortunately. but she did have this wonderful family who kept her going and there always seemed to be somebody there.
as far as reading, i don't think she did very much which was a shame because she was a very intellectual woman, highly educated. that intellect and that wonderful education seemed wasted in some ways. >> next question comes from bonnie who is watching us in cincinnati. hi, bonnie, you're on the air. >> hi. thank you for taking my call. this is a most intriguing subject. i do collect albums from the 1840's and 1850's of the central united states. and i do own a journal that was written by a family member of william henry harrison. the harrison family coming from cincinnati. after his death, frequently the letters that do i have, i'm not a member of that family, however i do have several of the letters and albums hand written, journals, and frequently similar to mrs. pierce, in the older women, elders of the family,
there is the serious concern and doom and gloom of just in general attitude toward who has deceased, who has succumbed to that. of course, consumption or tuberculosis as we know was a very common ailment in cincinnati, quite that. and i find that the prompting that she may have had to write about her deceased child may have come on her own. i have seen a new one but do see a letter from mrs. harrison, the daughter-in-law who went to the white house with william henry one of her sons did die upon coming home after being shortly in the white house, and she had written a small letter, it is in the papers here in the historical society.
>> thanks. i'm going to jump in because we understand that your comment here, which is writing to the deceased relative would have been somewhat common at the time. >> yes. she's made a very good point. >> a related question from john on facebook, he wants to know, was jane pierce criticized for her connections with spiritualism, even if they may not have been of her own choosing? >> not to my knowledge. >> so, the public was kind of intrigued by spiritualism at this time? she was in the fashion in that regard. >> i suppose so. but i haven't seen any criticism except the only criticism i did find out about was the spiritualists making themselves known to her. she could have done without that. >> danville, virginia, hi, c.b. >> hi. just thank you for taking my call. and i had a comment. i was -- i have a friend that fits in the same mold as jane pierce.
we call her a convenient invalid. but i also wanted to comment on the fact that i do arrange for rentals at a local museum and we have a hospice group that is going to be having a workshop for walking people through the process of keeping a journal writing to their deceased ones or their family members that are in hospice care. so i thought it was kind of interesting, that that's something that was done 150 years ago and people are still doing it today. >> thank you so much. would you agree, the convenient invalid? >> yes, that was a very good description. >> before we go to our next video, you mentioned that abbey kent means helped out as the official hostess. who was she? >> she was, well, she had been a
friend of jane. she was of the same generation. jane's uncle married her, so she became her aunt. they were very close. >> for our next video, we'll take you to concord, new hampshire, this time to the pierce map, to see some of her artifacts and learn about her life there and the loss of another one of her sons, franklin robert. >> franklin pierce had just finished serving in the congress. he had served two terms in the house and a full term in the senate. he resigned from his seat in the senate a year earlier than his term was up to move back to concord to be with jane and to raise their two children here.
this is the only house in concord that they ever owned and they bought that, moved in in late may, 1842. >> we're in the dining room at the pierce manse. typically the family would have their main meal at noon time. jane pierce was a shy, reclusive person. she didn't entertain a lot in her private home. this couch belonged to jane pierce. this is one piece they took to the white house. they had eight rooms that they had to furnish with their personal furniture, and so this was one of the pieces that they took to the white house with them. this table was known in jane's sister's family as the white house table. they had to borrow some creditor to take to the white house with them and this was one piece they borrowed from jane's sister, mary. they also took the little writing desk and chair that belonged to franklin pierce. this room would have been used as the guest room. however, the bed that's in this room is a small bed, and we
think this belonged to benny pierce. it's been refinished and lengthened so it fits an adult. this is the master bedroom of the pierce manse and the room franklin and jane would have used. this is the room where their second son frankie died of typhus when he was 4 years old. this was a blow to jane and franklin. he was the apple of their eye, quite an interesting little character, according to her letters. and they were devastated by his death and jane was in mourning quite a long time over frankie's death. >> i think a big house especially with only one child now was too much for jane to take care of. i don't think she was interested in housekeeping particularly. i think she just wasn't capable of taking care of a house. pierce went off to fight in the mexican war in 1847 and they sold the house when he came back in 1848 and then they lived in a boarding house again in concord and lived in a boarding situation for the rest of their
lives. >> we return to washington and the story of the white house because a fairly amazing thing at least to my ears, seemed to happen which is two years into this darkness and mourning and reclusive life on the second floor of the white house, she comes out of it. how did that happen and what was this new jane pierce like? >> it happened because that was the end of the mourning period. normally, as i said earlier, it would have been just 12 months mourning but jane being jane she took two years to get over the problem that she had over benny's death. and she wasn't exactly a new jane because she had, in spite of what people had said, she had participated in some of the events within the white house during the first two years.
the meetings that the first ladies had every friday, and afternoon tea, i think it was, when people could come in and see her and speak with her anybody could go, she did attend most of them. and this is evidenced by a man called h. hoover was the marshall of the district of columbia during that time, and he wrote to a mary witten who wrote about the first ladies and lived during the time of jane pierce. and it is evident that she did in fact attend these friday meetings, as much as she could. and sometimes she attended some important dinners that franklin pierce had to have.
but when the mourning period finished, perhaps it was a relief to her, i don't know, but she did attend more and more and she even attended the president's levees he had on a thursday afternoon. so it wasn't a sudden new jane that appeared, it was she just appeared more than she did. >> next is a question from tony in shaker heights, ohio. hi, tony. >> yes, hi. thank you for taking my call. i'm curious, i know franklin pierce was a good friend of nathaniel hawthorne, the writer, and i think hawthorne wrote his campaign biography. i'm curious, what was hawthorne's relationship with jane pierce? he could be moody as well. >> thanks for the question and timely because certain biographies suggest it was nathaniel hawthorne and irena
davis we'll learn about who were two of the very well known characters who helped with her reintroduction to society in washington. >> yes, yes. she didn't have a fairly good relationship with hawthorne really because he didn't like her and he felt that she was holding jane back and he wrote the biography for franklin's election and he wrote to her more than once, i wish we could change his wife. it wasn't a very good relationship but he never was rude to her. he helped her as much as he could. he took her out on outings during the two-year mourning period. but he did his best to maintain the relationship simply because he was the wife of one of his best friends. >> as we said earlier, the country was coming apart at the seams, the republican party was beginning to emerge in reaction to the politics. >> yes.
>> we have some of the key events of the pierce administration to show you some of the issues the president was grappling with while he had these family issues at home. and they include in 1853, the gadsden purchase, the treaty of kanagawa and the canada reciprocity treaty. 1854-1856, bleeding kansas. and the first republican meeting happened in response to the national politics. it's interesting jane pierce became very involved in the slavery issue and in fact got -- one of the discussions over the kansas-nebraska act became very vocal in advising the president, her husband, the president. >> what you're referring to is the situation where nancy mason, her aunt, whose husband was dead by then, but he had a relative
i've forgotten his name now but she had a relative, he was the leader of the anti-slavery movement in the kansas area. and he had been held in a court and found guilty of a misdemeanor because that was every pro slavery area at that time and he was threatening to take this man, robinson, that's his name. dr. robinson. and he was threatening to take robinson to court, and if found guilty, which was likely, in that state at that time, he would be hanged. and so nancy had written to jane to make a plea to try and save dr. robinson from this fate.
by then she was beginning to see franklin a little bit more. they met by then and she had an opportunity to speak to him about it. he listened very carefully and then he telegraphed to the appropriate person, and dr. robinson was freed. that is the incident i know about. i don't know of any other incident where she might have been useful and persuasive with regard to this situation. >> do we know her husband and she had differing views on slavery and abolition. >> they both were anti-slavery but he saw the sense of them having slaves in the south. and that was the difference between them. >> let me take a call next from karl in san diego. hi, karl, you're on. >> thank you. i read that franklin pierce had a drinking problem. i don't know whether it was
during his presidency or after or what? but if so, how much of an influence did the loss of his children and his wife's supposed frequent illnesses contribute to the drinking problem, if that's true? >> thank you. >> well, we can't answer that truly, can we? after he left the senate and came back to live in concord, he gave up alcohol. when he went down to the mexican war, we hear that he probably took to alcohol again. it wasn't a new thing. and franklin always drank and his father had been a tavern keeper. and he spent a lot of time with his father, so that's probably where he took up the drinking habit. after the mexican war, he didn't let jane see him drink but i
think he kept on drinking. so i think it got heavier at his most unhappy times. but i don't think that it was as a result particularly of those circumstances. i think he'd been drinking anyway. >> this unhappy white house was doomed to be a one-term presidency. can you tell us any more about why franklin pierce left the white house? >> it was -- he'd signed the kansas-nebraska act and that was a very unpopular thing to do. it was -- he didn't write it douglas drew it up. >> steven a. douglas. >> yes, steven a. douglas. but franklin signed it.
if he hadn't have signed it, i don't think he would have lost the -- his popularity, because he was still deemed to be a very good politician. he shouldn't have done, perhaps. we see that with james buchanan and steven a. douglas put their names forward as nominees for the presidency. which meant that franklin wouldn't have had the 2/3 majority he needed to be renominated, and he knew with the three nominees like that. and on the 17th ballot, james buchanan won the nomination and election for president. >> next up is mary in louisville, kentucky. hi, mary. your question? >> my question is, my name is mary means, and i believe that jane pierce's mother's maiden name was means. >> yes. >> and she was born, jane was,
in hampton, new jersey. can tell me if that's where the meanses were from? >> no, they weren't. the means family, to which jane belonged, originated from ireland, i believe, when means -- i think it was frederick means immigrated to america and alongside him came his son robert means. and robert was a weaver and became quite famous for making very good quality irish cloth. as a result of that, he made a little bit of money and decided that he would set up a business in new hampshire and just by
sheer luck chose earnest and went to new hampshire and became very rich, very famous as a very good entrepreneur, and that's how -- that's where that means family came from. >> well, with the loss of the white house for the pierces, how did they spend their post white house years? >> the first six months they stayed with the former secretary of state, and then james buchanan who liked franklin pierce, although he didn't like his politics but he liked him very much, respected him, also felt very sorry for the situation of jane's deteriorating illness, so he said, would you like to move over to medira, if you do, you can go for six months and you can go.
so jane wasn't going to go but her aunt mary decided that she must go. so they got her to go, so off they went to medira and unknown to her and together with sydney webster, they also organized a european trip which happened to take two years. but they first went to medira and left it and jane improved dramatically and even went horse riding and hardly ever had a cold and she -- for being 85 pounds in weight rose to 100 pounds in weight, she loved every minute of it and wrote a letter to her sister during that time to say, i can't believe who i was when i was in the white house. i'm a completely different
person. so that's where they went for the first six months. and jane improved tremendously as did franklin because he didn't have the worries of the state. then they set off on their wonderful european tour. towards the end of that tour, he started being ill again and she was disappointed. she said it is disappointing after such a long time of being well. when they eventually got back to concord in new hampshire franklin bought a farm but she became so ill she went to live with her sister in andover maryland, where benny had been taken after the accident, and she died there. >> where was she buried? >> she's buried in -- she's in the -- i forgot of the cemetery.
>> in new hampshire. the whole family is all together. >> her family is all together, yes. >> well, that ends our story of jane pierce, but as we hear the incoming president buchanan was fond of them, and in our next segment of first ladies, influence and image, we're going to learn more about the buchanan administration. we're going to introduce you to harriet lane who just at the age of 27 joined her uncle, james buchanan, who is our only bachelor president, in the white house, to serve as official hostess. she was well-educated and well-traveled and she became a popular figure in an otherwise tenuous time in a country on the brink of civil war and we'll tell you more about her in this video. >> harriet lane is a unique figure. she was 27 years old and the niece of our only bachelor president, james buchanan. >> we have a small doll that was
not a play thing owned by miss lane but rather created to look like her when she was a first lady. >> she had been well-trained and learned discretion from her diplomat uncle and one of harriet's great admirers was queen victoria. >> this was a gift the queen gave harriet, a beautiful gold bracelet and inside it has her name, harriet lane, and the date of 1857 when she received the gift. the delegation came to the white house in 1860 and they came bearing all types of gifts beautiful little shoes, paper folded objects, origami, little dictionary. ms. lane and her friend found all these things very intriguing. >> the great social triumph would be the first visit by the prince of wales and future edward vii and harriet presided over that. >> she'd wear gowns with many ruffles and white berthas at the neck and was known for her low neckline and wasn't in fashion yet and people copied her. some of her portraits created scandal because she was showing
a lot of skin. >> she was young and style issue -- stylish and became a celebrity. she was a precursor to the modern first lady. >> tell us more about harriet lane, we have two women at our table who both have been students of the american first ladies. meet feather schwartz foster. one of her book is called "the first ladies, an intimate portrait of the women who shaped america.” and ann covella is with us, "remembering the ladies, a century of u.s. first ladies." we just had a doom and gloom white house and in come the buchanans. what was the atmosphere in the buchanan white house? >> the atmosphere, the political atmosphere was just terrible. it really was. buchanan got to be president personally, i think, he had been a contender for about 12 years.
he was very well known and had been in politics like 40 years. he was an old man by the time he got to be president. >> now, careful. how old was he? >> about 65. so he is definitely an older man. and i think that he got elected president because he had been out of the country for four years during the pierce administration, so he didn't get tainted with a lot of the politicking and the ugliness and the divisiveness that had been going on. >> were they looking again for a compromised candidate? >> they were looking for someone they used the word "available" a lot. that does not mean he had nothing better to do. it meant that he -- he would be acceptable all the way around. >> and what was the spirit of his white house? even with all the strife in the country. >> i think the best way to put it is that politically he was a dud. he ranked as the bottom of the barrel.
but the whole white house, the atmosphere in the white house was brilliant. i don't think there had been anything like it since dolly madison. he had a flurry with julia tyler but he was only around for eight months and past that, the white house didn't really sparkle, but under buchanan, it sparkled. >> the woman responsible for coordinating life in the white house was harriet lane. who was harriet lane? >> she was the niece of james buchanan. she'd been orphaned at an early age and he took her under his wing. when her father died, i think he was made aware -- made it her guardian.
>> buchanan was her guardian. both her parents died when she was about 9 or 10 and he was her guardian. >> legal guardian. >> he took care of a bunch of nieces and nephews. he was a bachelor. >> for the pennsylvanians out there we should mention he was pennsylvania's only president. >> from lancaster. >> we will be visiting the home he built in lancaster, pennsylvania, as the segment continues. as a reminder, we'd like you to be involved. it's more fun when you ask questions. you can do that by calling us, 202-573-5580. and you can tweet us using the #firstlady or post-it on facebook and we'll take your questions. >> there was a reading about a pygmalion between the uncle and niece and he was determined to shape her into a proper woman. >> he took very good care -- he had a very affectionate relationship with her. he loved her dearly. she loved him dearly. he was like a father figure to her.
and he sent her to the best schools. she had the best of really everything. buchanan did very well for himself. he made a lot of money. so money was not an object. he could have just about anything that he wanted. and he saw to it she was trained to be exactly what she was, a brilliant social success. >> one of the influences on her education was when her uncle was appointed ambassador to great britain, her home country and she in fact met the queen. >> she did. >> tell us what you know about her experiences there and why she so charmed queen victoria. >> well, it's unusual somebody should charm queen victoria in such a way, but she certainly did. i think it was her youth and her effervescence. and she was such a change in
this rather stiff royal court. and having read about her, she was a very happy girl, wasn't she? >> she was delightful. >> and you know, even the prince of wales, and he was only 18 years old, fell under her spell. >> they were somewhat contemporaries. >> he was -- she was about 10 years older. >> she was, she was about 28 by then but certainly queen victoria thought she was wonderful and gave her the official title of -- an official title, which wouldn't normally be given to a niece. it would only be given to the wife of an ambassador. >> and is it true that queen victoria was so taken she tried to make a match with her british
subjects, so she would stay in the country? >> i'm not sure that is true. but queen victoria and prince albert, both of them, thought very highly of harriet and harriet enjoyed her time on the continent a lot. she learned a lot. she really grew over there. >> well, the home that james buchanan built in lancaster, pennsylvania, he was quite a successful lawyer and made a lot of money. >> he was. >> and built a big house he named wheat land and we'll visit the wheat land mansion next, explore her life there and see some of the items from the white house that were brought there as we learn more about her style and her approach to being the white house official hostess. >> here we are in harriet lane's bedroom at wheatland. and this room is furnished in a way that's very similar to the way it might have been furnished when she was living here. the furnishings you see today are actually pieces she owned after her marriage in 1866. so behind me you'll see her original wardrobe.
and this is a piece where she would have stored her beautiful gowns, her european gowns she purchased from paris. she was well known throughout the country for fabulous clothing. she had a penchant for european fashions. most of her clothes were handmade for her. in paris. and the dress here was actually designed by the fashion house worth of paris and worn later in life. her signature style as first lady differed fairly radically from this dress here. she'd wear full gown with many layers of ruffles and white berthas at the neck and known for her low neckline, which wasn't in fashion in america yet but she brought it to the forefront of fashion and people started copying her. some of her garments created a bit of a scandal because she was showing quite a bit of skin but it caught on and all the ladies adopted this fashion. she copied her hair, her jewelry and general fashion sense. now, over to the right here we have a small doll that was not a
play thing owned by ms. lane but rather created to look just like her when she was the first lady and the doll is wearing her signature style of gown with a white bertha with lots of tulle and lace. in front of me is a beautiful rosewood mahogany bed she had especially made to accommodate her uncle james buchanan. now, this bed is rather long for the time. he was a very tall man and she wanted to make sure he was comfortable so this is something she commissioned specifically with her beloved uncle in mind. we also have many pieces in the room which are american made and european made reflecting not only her pride of country but also her interest in european pieces as well. we have her prayer bench which is hand embroidered and holds her mother's book of common prayer which ms. lane used throughout her life and also a small writing desk she would use to sit and write letters to friends and luckily it's a portable writing desk as she spent most her time traveling to friend and family throughout the
country. >> on facebook, rachel asks, was harriet lane truly more fashionable than previous first ladies or was it merely the development of photography that made her a fashion trendsetter? >> oh, no. i think -- well, photography, of course, helped because it was able to be reproduced rather than just a portrait, but she was a fashion trendsetter, absolutely. she looked good in clothes. she had a nice figure. she was buxom but wasn't fat. she made a lovely appearance. i think the only detrimental thing i ever read about harriet lane, some people thought she was a little stiff, maybe a little too formal. but with the political situation, being what it was during those times, i think she needed to be. >> i'm going to explore this topic a little bit more, because in the first ladies we've